Dear Australia – new Australian performance writing

Tariro Mavondo. Photo by Gavin Jaymes. Image Supplied.
Tariro Mavondo. Photo by Gavin Jaymes. Image Supplied.

Playwriting Australia’s (PWA) Dear Australia offers bite-sized monologues that give voice to the hopes and fears of Australians facing the persistent threat of COVID-19. The Victorian College of the Arts was delighted to be represented as part of the Dear Australia line-up through a number of current and former staff, and alumni including Morgan Rose, James Majoos, Tariro Mavondo, Carly Sheppard, Richard Frankland, Kevin Hofbauer, Diane Stubbings, Eric Gardiner and Ross Mueller.

By Mireille Stahle

Playwriting Australia extended a hand to 50 playwrights to share their experiences of lockdown in the form of a metaphorical postcard, addressed Dear Australia. PWA invited 25 small to medium sized theatre organisations from across Australia to nominate two playwrights. These playwrights were then commissioned to write a short monologue, to be filmed by 50 extraordinary actors in various states of lockdown. Livestreamed over three nights in July across Facebook and Youtube, the 50 short works provide an unprecedentedly broad scope of perspectives on the global pandemic.

Western Edge Youth Arts co-artistic director and graduate of the Bachelor of Dramatic Art (2011) Tariro Mavondo generously took the time to talk about her her written piece, Second Coming, performed by Wallangamma and Takalaka dancer and choreographer Carly Sheppard, VCA Dance graduate.

"We are extraordinary in our ordinariness, and I think for me, Dear Australia and the COVID-19 pandemic which inspired it, have really brought to the surface our deepest fears and our deepest beauty," says Mavondo.

"The character I have written for Dear Australia is a disenfranchised and structurally disadvantaged young person of colour, male, who has fallen through the cracks of society. He's a complicated character who spent most of his formative years in the juvenile detention and criminal justice system.

"My intention around this character is that of humanising black, BIPOC, and young men. They're so multidimensional, and they hold so much wisdom. So it was really important for my character to be poetic, to subvert the stereotype of what a 'gang' or a 'street kid' is.

"The character idolises whiteness because that is the skin colour his mother is. She is anti-black and hates her son, so he cannot seek the redemption and salvation that he needs from her. I wanted to explore toxic femininity and the dark side of womanhood, where women are profiteers and beneficiaries of a Western European capitalist, racist system.

"Because he is bi-racial, my character grapples with his blackness and the complexity of  being targeted by a system for the very thing he cannot accept within himself. Having Carly Sheppard, a female-identifying First Nations Australian, play a ‘male’ character for me was an interesting opportunity.

"It was important for me to explore non-binaries – what it is to honour having femininity and masculinity co-existing within a body and how fluidity plays out in this highly complex character."

Mavondo was brought to Australia by her family at five years old so that her father could study a PhD at Monash University. "That was a massive transition to make." She reflects,  "I think I struggled with everything being inverse– all of a sudden I stopped being the majority and became a minority. The stage became a kind of lifeline for me, where I could  escape from the craziness of dealing with resettlement ... I wanted to effect change either politically or creatively.

"Playwriting Australia approached 25 small and medium size theatre companies because they wanted to get real diversity, and a truly intersectional spread of artists. I was fortunate to be nominated by Street Theatre  in Canberra because I'd done some work acting in their show The Faithful Servant, looking at colonisation in Mozambique, Africa.

"I started writing my commission a day after George Floyd's murder. I could feel it viscerally in all my cells. So you could say that the Black Lives Matter movement really inspired this piece. There is a moment where the character says, "Mum, I can't breathe, can I smoke?" which makes reference to how easy it is to take a black life, as well as the devastation on land, as a body, that we experienced earlier this year with the catastrophic bushfires.

"In my response I wanted to create a character with whom I could explore how someone marginalised, who wouldn't normally get a look-in, is dealing with the COVID crisis – what their needs are, and how urgent and vital their needs are."

To Mavondo it's no surprise that there is a high representation of VCA talent in the project. "VCA graduates are not the kind of actor that's waiting for a call. They are autonomous and  independent. That's something I've really taken from VCA. You can literally carve your own pathway.

"I started writing at the VCA. We were learning a lot of classical texts, first and second year contemporary texts, and I was like, 'Oh, I think I can do this.' And so I began writing monologues and scenes, and some of my scenes went into our third year show. Since then I've been acting, performing and doing a lot of community-based work, community engagement work as well as spoken word poetry."

Watch Tariro Mavondo's work, Second Coming, performed by Carly Sheppard , from (55.51"), in Dear Australia – Part Three.

Watch more performances by VCA alumni and staff:

Dear Australia livestreamed over three nights: Thursday 2 July, Friday 3 July and Sunday 5 July on multiple Facebook pages and on Playwriting Australia'sYoutube channel. Videos will be available to watch until September 2020.